Many of us have heard the term “identity crisis” but few of us stop long enough, in our busy lives, to truly understand what it means in terms of ourselves. Our sense of self is closely interwoven in past experiences, present awareness, and future projection. The very notion of having a sense of self is often plagued by a ubiquitous reality when attempting to solidify a coherent identity. Do you ever find yourself questioning your role in life or are you unsettled with the feeling of not knowing the ‘real you’? What in the world does this mean for each of us as unique individuals and how to we successfully navigate this conflict we experience as an everyday reality?
When individuals and/or couples find themselves at a crossroads in life, their ubiquitous reality is often in stark contrast to their true identity; a crisis is reached. Often times we reach this place within ourselves when our coping mechanisms no longer serve the purpose we need them to serve and/or our defense mechanisms have run their course. More often than not, we cannot pinpoint or target why we are experiencing internal dissonance or conflict in terms of self or in our marriage. Most of us spend a lifetime running from the reality of having to face ourselves. Conflict arises in our lives as a direct result of the fear we experience when this realization gets too close for comfort. Instead of choosing to look at ourselves, many of us would much rather point the finger at our past or anyone or anything in our present and place blame. We continue to believe we are who we are and we have an inability to do anything different as a result of our past. The deeper question is whether it is really an inability to look at ourselves versus a lack of having witnessed or experienced an alternate reality that we believe can be true for ourselves. We often rely on our experiences alone, and if these experiences were dysfunctional in any way, they can inhibit us from reaching our true potential in life.
Past experiences have a fickle way of molding and defining our present reality. We take our past experiences and memories and allow this not only to define who we are but define our present set of circumstances as well. For many of us, we lack the tools and resources to challenge these experiences and instead allow them to define our actions, choices, and decisions. In so doing, we often become a product of our circumstances. This becomes evident in a young man who presents to therapy believing that he does not deserve happiness, he is never going to amount to anything, he believes he is unworthy of love, and destined for failure in life. When delving in to the past experiences of this young man, it is learned that he grew up in an extremely dysfunctional and abusive household, he saw four separate step-fathers come in and out of the home, his mother blamed him for the failed relationships, and not a single person in his immediate family graduated from high school or supported him in his own academic endeavors so he quit school in the 9th grade.
Further, this young man is frustrated at the lack of opportunities in life and believes everyone is out to get him. Our present awareness can challenge us to either set ourselves up for success or set us up for failure. However, as in the case of this young man, what happens when our present awareness is deeply rooted in our past experiences? How does one successfully navigate this identity crisis? If we sit back and wait for life to happen to us we are going to be waiting for a long time. This type of awareness exists when we choose to be a product of our circumstances versus figuring out how to rise above it. The challenge is to figure out who we are FIRST, before we can figure out who we are with anyone or in anything else. When we arrive at a place within ourselves when we determine that we are sick and tired of being sick and tired, true change can begin to take hold, as we are willing to challenge our current reality with an alternate perspective. First and foremost there is the necessity of having a willingness to do something different than we would not have otherwise done.
With this willingness, how then do we solidify a coherent identity? From the AA adage, “Accept the things we cannot change, have the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” When we find ourselves at this crossroads we have two choices, face ourselves and/or engage in a new dysfunctional defense mechanism. If choosing to face ourselves we are choosing to be active participants in our lives, choosing to be present versus merely existing and going through the motions of day-to-day life. It becomes a growth producing process of self-reflection, healing, insight, vulnerability, and getting in touch with our deepest sense of self that we may have spent a lifetime denying or believing was not good enough or acceptable. With this newfound hope, courage, strength, and resilience we have the ability to reestablish our foundation and redefine our present set of circumstances that lead us to this crossroads in the first place. It may not be the path of least resistance, but when refusing to be a product of our own circumstances we have the ability to experience freedom in endless possibilities and potential. We learn how to define ourselves first, set healthy boundaries to protect ourselves, and begin building a new repertoire of tools and resources to handle the ubiquitous reality with our newly solidified coherent identity.
In the case of the young man, he knew he could not continue doing the same thing he was doing and expect a different result. Yes, this is the definition of insanity. Instead, he stood up and said, “I am willing to do anything it takes even though I have absolutely no idea how to do it”. He further stated that he refused to continue being a product of his circumstances. Instead of allowing his past adversity to define and control him he was going to glean every ounce of wisdom to embrace a successful future that is in store for each and every one of us as unique individuals. As this young man worked to reframe past experiences, while embracing a new unselfconscious awareness, he has removed those obstacles that inhibited his forward movement. His future projection is bright as he is embracing himself and in so doing, is able to embrace the opportunities that lay before him. This young man can easily answer the question of ‘who is defining whom’ through his actions. Just remember, all things are possible, not some things, not a few things, but all things; and, sometimes it just takes getting out of our own way to experience the limitless possibilities and opportunities in store for us.